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Miss America

Contest comes up losers, not winners

Guest author

My favorite dust-up of the year so far is the battle within the Miss America ranks about allowing divorcees and women who admit to having had an abortion into the pageant next year.

Next thing you know, they’ll be letting in lesbians, and then contestants who weren’t always female, and women who are married and maybe even mothers.

“Shocked,” 1993 Miss America Leanza Cornett told a reporter when asked about her feelings when the new guidelines hit the papers last week.

Miss Delaware Kama Boland couldn’t believe her ears, either. “The word ‘Miss’ stands for something,” she said, without elaborating.

The feminist in me probably should call for dismantling the pageant. I always figured it was no coincidence that Miss America began a year after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. But I don’t have a problem with Miss America. It is silly, elitist, arcane and full of itself qualities I appreciate in a public spectacle. Why else would I watch royal weddings and golf?

I agree with those who, in opposing the new relaxed guidelines, argue that Miss America ought to hold its contestants to the highest standards, preserving the pageant as a contest to crown “the ideal woman.” Exactly. What fun would it be to watch women who are like most of us? I admit to a twisted fascination with women who, as adults using their real names, parade around in Barbie gowns and with perky earnestness explain how they fit in exercise and beauty treatments with their primary occupation of saving humankind.

In other words, I don’t like the new guidelines because I don’t want real life creeping in and ruining my campy fun. It’s like watching the “X-Files.” Analyze it too deeply (or examine the make-up jobs too closely), and the fantasy’s gone.

What a delightful exercise in imagination to think that not one of the 51 contestants ever had an abortion. Or that none of them has ever lived with a man, forgoing marriage certificates in deference to the pageant. Or that unmarried, non-procreating women with firm thighs and $500 in Clinique products on their faces represent American womanhood.

In some ways, we can look at Miss America as a way of leveling the playing field for beautiful women who might otherwise be shut out of the American dream: becoming famous. See, if you’re smart, you might invent something clever or found your own start-up. If you’re cocky and controlling, you could run for office. If you’re 6-10 with a jump shot, you might play for the Lakers.

But if you only have long legs and clear skin, you either flip letters for Pat Sajak or you saunter down a runway in Atlantic City.

Think about it: What kind of lives could these young women hope for if we took away Miss America? They’d probably end up as the wives of rich guys who’d expect them to hold dinner parties and know who Kofi Annan is. They’d be subjected to Junior League fashion shows, doubles matches and trips with the girls to the Golden Door.

If feminism stands for anything, it’s opportunity. By preserving Miss America as it is, these women have the opportunity to utilize the gifts God gave them. And the rest of us have the opportunity to enjoy a tradition so deliciously out-of-date and amusing it has lost all power to offend. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Fancisco Chronicle. Send comments to her at her e-mail at joanryan@sfgate.com.)